Speciation of Research Frameworks in Sociology: Rational Choice Theory, Analytical Sociology and Other Actor-Centered Approaches

Tuesday, 12 July 2016: 10:45
Location: Hörsaal 27 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Daniel LITTLE, University of Michigan-Dearborn, USA
There are several approaches to the study of the social world that give priority to individuals in social settings. Rational choice theory (RCT) and game theory (Becker, Harsanyi), actor-centered sociology (ACS) and pragmatist theory (Goffman, Gross), analytical sociology (AS) (Hedstrom, Ylikoski), and agent-based models (ABM) (Axelrod, Manzo) all attempt to explain the social on the basis of assumptions about actors. It is tempting but misleading to see these as different formulations to the same basic approach. However, there are important differences. These approaches bring different assumptions about actors and about social explanation.

How are these similar approaches related? Are they “friend or foe” – competitors or cooperators? We might think of a research framework as consisting of a small set of “genes” (methodological and ontological assumptions), which then give rise to the “phenotype” of research products in the hands of groups of researchers. On this approach, AS and RCT share a number of genes in common, and they are open to borrowing additional elements in the future through research collaboration (inter-species contact). Analytical sociology and rational choice theory are closely related, and show promise of becoming more so in the future. But likewise, analytical sociology can become a more robust genotype for sociological research by adopting components from its ecological partner, actor-based sociology.

This paper will argue that analytical sociology has the intellectual breadth to encompass the core insights of RCT and ACS as distinct theories of the actor. The techniques of agent-based modeling are well suited to one key component of the AS model of explanation, the aggregative component (the rising strut of Coleman’s boat), but less so to the descending macro-to-micro strut. Finally, it will be noted that ABM is not restricted to applications within rational choice theory but can incorporate pragmatist findings into its models as well.